Tell me a story…


Janette Bell finds fascination in quilts with a narrative.

There are many forms of quilting, and we all have our own favourites. Perhaps yours is wholecloth quilting, with its intricate, painstakingly stitched patterns? Or you may be a fan of art quilts, patchwork, or appliqué? Personally, I love quilts that tell a story, and particularly a story about the past.

Quilts made with meaning

As a fairly recent convert to quilting, my enthusiasm for these quilts grew out of an existing passion for discovering and highlighting aspects of women’s lives in the past, which I feel are often overlooked.

Coming across Cas Holmes’ beautiful 2015 book ‘Stitch Stories: Personal places, spaces and traces in textile art’1 was a revelation. Firstly, this style of work was new to me, and I fell in love with its distressed textiles and unfinished edges, its vintage photographs and the embroidered elements which wandered across the various scraps of cloth with no respect for boundaries. Secondly, I discovered that textiles could be used to tell the stories I wanted to tell.

“… a quilt with a historical narrative can evoke a strong emotional response both for the past and the present”

The image that most inspired me was the book’s cover image, ‘Garden of Remembrance’. Commissioned by the Garden Museum in Lambeth as part of a community project marking the centenary of the First World War, this evocative piece explores the place gardening occupied in life on the Home Front, from the national effort to grow scarce produce to the symbolic role of flowers in honouring the dead. A picture of the courageous Norfolk-born nurse Edith Cavell adds a further layer of meaning, connecting to Holmes’ own Norfolk roots, while across the completed work run a scatter of embroidered poppies, reminding us of what is to come and reinforcing the message of remembrance.

Having discovered that quilting, and textile art more widely, can be used to tell a story that connects us in some way with the past, I began searching for other practitioners. I found that approaches vary widely, from pieces designed to capture a specific incident or time period in sharp detail, to others that offer only subtle, mysterious whispers from the past – snatches of text, a vintage photo or a faded piece of lace – hints of a story that leave us with a fleeting impression of someone passing by just out of sight.

Catherine Corbishley Michel, for instance, specialises in cyanotype (blueprint) and has made a number of quilts focusing on Antarctic exploration. Her atmospheric ‘Terra Nova’ series, begun in 2014, commemorates the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910–13, and includes ‘Terra Nova 2: Scientists’. Dark blue cyanotype on a white background brings a fittingly chill sense of Antarctic cold to Herbert Ponting’s monochrome photos. While we know the expedition culminated in the death of Robert Falcon Scott and four others in his small South Polar team, this ‘Terra Nova’ quilt concentrates on the wider, large scientific expedition. A community of hardy explorers and scientists gaze back at us from Ponting’s photos, measuring, recording, eating, working, socialising, living, in one of the most extraordinary places on Earth.

Not all narrative quilts set out to tell such a clear story. Textile artist Ali Ferguson creates distressed patchworks which she describes as ‘story collages’. These are often inspired by found items such as a scribbled recipe or some laundry notes, an old postcard or a scrap of letter, which she prints or hand embroiders onto vintage textiles. As her piece ‘Dear Nora’ demonstrates, Ferguson’s completed collages leave us guessing. Who wrote that postcard, or snipped that article from a newspaper? These pieces offer a tantalising glimpse into a vanished world, inviting us to imagine the rest of the story ourselves.

My final example is a piece by Pauline Macaulay, who initiated and chaired the Talking Quilts: Saving Quilters’ Stories oral history project2. Macaulay’s quilts are often inspired by a historical or social theme, including ‘Coram Cloths, Threads of Feeling’, which is about the heart-wrenching tokens left at the Coram Fields Foundling Hospital in London in the 18th century by mothers handing over their babies. Small identifying trinkets and scraps of cloth testify to a hope that one day they would return to reclaim their lost child, while poignant lines of poetry – from an anonymous mother of the time and from current Welsh poet Tony Curtis – give voice to the grief and loss felt by these mothers and their fear that the longed-for reunion would never happen.3

Of my examples, ‘Coram Cloths, Threads of Feeling’ is the quilt that reaches furthest back in time for its story, but it also has resonance today. Pauline explains that it relates to members of her own family: ‘I have embroidered the names of my mother and my husband whose birth mothers, for different reasons, handed them over into the care of others. Like mothers the world over they wanted their children to have a better life.’4

“In the process of making, layers of story emerge.”

This is a good example of how a quilt with a historical narrative can evoke a strong emotional response both for the past and the present. This can be a very powerful tool. You may recall an article by Anita O’Brien in the Summer 2020 issue of ‘The Quilter’, about the National African American Quilt Convention 2019.5 Several quilts in this exhibition featured narratives from African American history, most notably Marla A. Jackson’s ‘Celia Story’ and Cheryl Willis Hudson’s ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’. These quilts not only testify to the crimes of the past but speak with anger and sorrow of a continuing current injustice.

How to classify?

To end, it may be worth considering how this area of quilting can best be described, although I have no definitive answer. It probably sits most comfortably within the category of contemporary quiltmaking, but searching the Members’ Area of The Guild’s website I didn’t find practitioners easy to track down because I didn’t have a single, simple term to search under. ‘Historical narrative quilting’ is one term I have come across, while another is ‘history quilts’ (although I suggest this could perhaps lead to confusion between quilts about the past, and those from the past). A more general term might be ‘story quilts’, which would also include pieces exploring current themes, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. I feel it would be useful to have a term that would allow quilters with an interest in this area to find each other – and one may already exist; perhaps someone reading this article has a solution?

However we describe them, whether they tell a clear story or bring us only a whisper from the past – a tantalising echo, a voice in the corridor, something just out of reach – all are intended to evoke an emotional response in us, whether admiration, nostalgia, sorrow, or even anger. I find them exciting, atmospheric and beautiful, and I hope you do too. 

© Janette Bell 2021

This feature first appeared in The Quilter, Spring 2021 (issue 166). The Quilter is the members-only publication of The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles

References and further information

1  Cas Holmes (2015), Stitch Stories: Personal places, spaces and traces in textile art, Batsford, London.

2  Talking Quilts was an oral history project of The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It recorded, preserved and continues to share stories of today’s UK quiltmakers. 

3  Tony Curtis (2012), ‘Coram’s Cloth’ from Tokens for the Foundlings (edited by Tony Curtis), Seren Books, Bridgend.

4  Pauline W. Macaulay. Quote taken from the artist’s statement for Coram Cloths, Threads of Feeling, which was an entry in the virtual competition in Beyond The Festival of Quilts 2020. The quilt was shortlisted in The Quilters’ Guild Challenge, which had the theme ‘The Threads that Bind’.

5  Anita O’Brien, ‘The National African American Quilt Convention 2019’, The Quilter, Summer 2020, issue 163, 32–35.

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